Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ebert Leaves Balcony, Launches Blog

As reported by MSN today, veteran film critic Roger Ebert has left his movie review TV show "At the Movies" and has just launched his own blog via the Chicago Sun-Times. Read his heartfelt posting on his departure here. When Ebert first left the show for health reasons, I suspected that he would not return. Sadly, my prediction has come true, but not for the reason I thought it would.

Ebert's transition from TV to the web marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. Many fans of the program, among whom I count myself, have expressed feelings similar to those experienced upon Johnny Carson's 1992 retirement from "The Tonight Show". The comparison is valid, as regular viewers invited Ebert into their living rooms for over 25 years and are sad to see him go. One of the cold, hard facts of the television industry is that, regardless of the subject or time slot, talk shows can only last so long before they need revitalization. In most cases, the passing of the torch to a younger host coincides with the retirement or firing of the current host. The new talent is then tasked with the Olympian responsibilities of maintaining the current viewership and wooing a new generation of fans. Regarding "At the Movies", the show will go on with Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz taking over as hosts.

It is worth noting that, in spite of an extended cancer battle that has cruelly robbed him of his speech, Ebert's output of reviews has been largely undiminished. In fact, his writings have been so prolific in recent months as to put critics of younger age and better health to shame. His resilience in the face of an illness that has nearly claimed his life is nothing short of Spartan and serves as an inspiring example for the rest of us to follow. Judging from the man's work ethic, enthusiasm, and unwavering passion for the art he loves, Ebert's best work is ahead of him.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Film in Perfect Balance: 'Koyaanisqatsi' at 25

The annals of film-centered writing are littered with remembrance articles. Published a certain number of years after a given film's release (ten, 25, and 50 appear to be the usual suspects among such anniversaries), these obligatory bloviations offer fond reminiscences of life in a bygone era, the film's initial box office run, and vapid catch phrases from the film's screenplay that have since permeated our popular culture to become a part of our lexicon. Invariably, these disingenuous recollections are written to boost the sales of said films' special DVD box sets.

In the case of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, a welcome exception to this rule is at hand. Though the film does celebrate its 25th birthday this year, nowhere will a theatrical re-release or commemorative DVD be found. Leave it to the studios' anti-substance marketing machines to heap nostalgic recognition on undeserving films. If the spectrum of film criticism produces no other acknowledgment of Koyaanisqatsi this year, let this missive stand as a salute to one of the most powerful statements on humanity's relationship to planet Earth every captured on celluloid.

As a fair disclosure to my readers, it should here be noted that detailed descriptions of several scenes will follow. Though this disclaimer smacks of a spoiler warning, such words are not appropriate in this case. Koyaanisqatsi is a film of such depth and beauty that even if the most astute film scholar in the world were to intricately dissect its every frame and its every second of sound, the analysis would not come close to spoiling anyone's first viewing. Ten viewings will yield ten separate interpretations, and at least as many new discoveries. In the truest Confucian sense, this picture is worth ten thousand words.

The film opens with a series of nondescript shapes that gradually form the film's title (which roughly translates from Hopi to English as "life out of balance") in a vivid red font. This unveiling, which closely resembles a sunrise, is accompanied by the solemn score of Philip Glass. Soon the image changes to a zoom-out shot of an Indian pictograph depicting a group of dark figures (presumably humans) standing around a taller, lighter-colored figure wearing a crown. A lingering dissolve brings us to a slow-motion close-up of a spacecraft lifting off from its launching pad.

This stark contrast is but the first of many dualities that figure heavily throughout the film. Interior shots cut to exterior shots, the photography intercuts between dance-like slow-motion and frenetic time-lapse, day contrasts with night, and the music features melodies built on ascending and descending arpeggios that alternate between major and minor keys. In this universe, everything moves in cycles, but nothing is above decay.

It is at this moment that the film deviates from every other feature documentary made before it. Usually, the audience hears a familiar voice like Morgan Freeman's delivering the introductory narration after a few minutes. Koyaanisqatsi eschews narration completely, an audacious choice considering the film runs nearly 90 minutes. In fact, the film features no spoken dialogue whatsoever. In trusting the camera and Glass' music to narrate the action, Reggio skillfully weaves the channels of image and sound together to convey more than any spoken voice ever could.

In a sequence that puts any footage ever aired on The Discovery Channel to shame, the next several minutes treat us to a collage of breathtaking natural environments. Pristine canyon landscapes, crashing ocean waves, bubbling volcanos, and spectacular wind-blown clouds roll before us in a majestic presentation of the four elements that make our world as untouched by humans. Like Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony, the music assumes a quality so reverent, it practically jumps out of the soundtrack and proclaims, "Behold!"

Suddenly, the music changes to a dark, ominous tone. A monstrous mining truck slowly approaches the camera before pulling to a stop. Then, a construction worker (the first human seen in the film) enters the frame from the right and approaches the truck. Without warning, a thick cloud of black dust billows upward before engulfing the vehicle completely. Interpreted as a linear timeline, the simple scene portrays the destructive irony of man moving backward instead of forward when chasing technological advancements, only to be swallowed whole by the very machines designed to make life easier.

What follows is a mobile collage that places organisms and manmade structures in the frame simultaneously. Power lines divide a desert landscape in half. Beachgoers bask in the sun with a menacing power plant encroaching in the background. An atomic bomb's mushroom cloud dwarfs a cactus in the foreground. A low-angle shot of a skyscraper reflects passing clouds in its grid-like windows.

The next two-and-a-half minutes are responsible for one of the most stunning unedited shots ever captured in a feature-length film. On an airport runway, a commercial aircraft slowly taxis toward the camera. The heat rising from the asphalt makes the apparition seem otherworldly. Just when the plane comes clearly into view, it makes a sharp right turn out of the frame and is immediately replaced by a second aircraft advancing toward us. The front of the 747 resembles a blank face that stares at us dispassionately, a far cry from the warmth of the human face that Ingmar Bergman once called "the great gift of cinematography".

A cutaway brings our attention to an overhead shot of a busy freeway. For the first time in the film, the frame is completely occupied by manmade structures. The angle and position of the camera splits both directions of traffic evenly down the middle in a composition similar to that of the desert power lines seen earlier in the film. A helicopter shot provides a broader view, with the lanes resembling veins, cars resembling cells, and their drivers appearing similar to mitochondriae. Collectively, these images form a smoothly efficient network serving public functions like systems in a human body.

When rush hour gridlock brings traffic to a near standstill, the scene quickly match cuts to a helicopter shot of cars parked in perfect rows on a lot. The precision of their arrangement merits comparison to a military officer's ribbon racks. One wonders what image could possibly follow it. A junkyard? A demolition derby? The scene of a fatal collision, perhaps? No sooner do these questions cross the mind than does the shot cut to stock footage of Soviet tanks lined up in similar rows. The jarring effect of the edit strikes the viewer with the awe of a skyward-thrown bone changing to an orbiting space satellite. After an incredible shot of an in-flight B-1 Lancer aircraft taken with a cleverly mounted camera, the pace quickens with a montage of explosions that brings back memories of Dr. Strangelove's memorable finale.

When the last detonation occurs, the scene changes to a calm view of New York City at dawn. Shadows of clouds glide across the skyline as the music transitions to a lament played on a cello. Soon we see the dilapidated buildings of the failed Pruitt-Igoe federal housing project in St. Louis. Shattered windows, abandoned playgrounds, broken streetlights, torn curtains whipping in the wind like surrender flags, and unkempt ghetto residents weave an urban tapestry of despair. Several angles of the project's inevitable demolition reveal one of the most destructive cycles of modern life: build, destroy, repeat.

A time-lapse shot of clouds passing overhead transports us to another metropolis. At busy intersections, hordes of stressed pedestrians cross city streets surrounded by billboards advertising fast food, cigarettes, and liquor. How fitting it is to capture an exhausted populace rendered sluggish by the breakneck pace of life in slow-motion. Here we are treated to one of the film's most telling compositions in the form of a neon sign perched high above a city street bearing the words "Grand Illusion".

Day changes to night and the pace quickens. Freeway traffic rushes by at triple-quick speed. Commuters at Grand Central Station flock and scatter in structured chaos. City traffic darts between stoplights in short bursts that serve as an uncomfortably true metaphor for the lockstep daily routines into which we fall. The supersonic rhythm the film assumes during this sequence is enough to double the heart rate.

The alacritous procession continues with images of assembly line workers in factories. Processed foods, clothing, and automobiles race through various stages of production, sometimes with the camera keenly placed on the conveyor belt. Intercut with these preparations are snippets of supermarket shoppers in checkout lines and mall shoppers riding escalators. Some angles on the latter appear virtually identical to hot dogs emerging from production line machinery. This oscillation between the manufacturer and the consumer denotes their codependence, and underscores the ever-shortening replacement cycle by which our economy operates.

Advertising eventually finds (or, more appropriately, forces) its way into the bedlam. A close-up of a television set projects broadcasts that fly past us too quickly to be understood, but just slow enough to be perceived. An ad for Rolaids follows a young Lou Dobbs, Ted Koppel reporting live on ABC precedes a Tylenol commercial, and (in the most audacious pairing) a sermon delivered by Jerry Falwell airs just before the familiar logo for Ban roll-on deodorant graces the screen. It is an exposure of the manipulative nature of visual media that is as revealing as the writings of Vance Packard. The message is clear: don't think, just buy.

Even leisure time goes unspared from the rapid-fire onslaught. A cramped family eats dinner amid the rat race at a mall. A succession of children stand transfixed at video game cabinets, pushing buttons as feverishly as lab rats awaiting food pellets. Disco patrons maneuver uneasily on illuminated dance floors. A culture that promotes stress relief by way of additional stimulation can only end in ruin.

With a series of lingering dissolves between extreme close-ups of microchips, the film begins its gradual, haunting conclusion. The microscopic views of integrated circuits suggest the bird's eye view of city blocks. Not surprisingly, these shots are bookended with satellite views of the latter. As technology advances and hardware engineers devise ways to make large amounts of data travel faster by packing circuits closer together, the life of the machine shortens. Similarly, as the population grows and architects design buildings that hold more residents, property values and productivity may increase -- but then again, so does stress.

The long-term effects of these conditions are then laid bare in a series of slow-motion segments. The hand of an infirm woman reaches for the comforting grasp of a nurse. A homeless man wanders aimlessly among the aftermath of the New York City blackout. Burnt out pedestrians lumber down crowded streets practically unaware of one another. Finally, multiple overlays of the frenzied New York Stock Exchange meld in a disoriented blur. One wonders whether if it is methodical or accidental that a self-centered society like ours routinely produces people who lose their sense of identity.

The film ends with the spectacular liftoff of an unmanned Atlas rocket used in the Mercury space program. Though the sequence consists entirely of footage from NASA archives, the finished product shines with the polish of a big budget feature. Unlike the thrilling launch scenes in The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, however, this ascent is accompanied by a gripping sense of doom. From the moment the spacecraft clears the tower, the audience is hit with the dreaded notion that the flight is going to end badly.

In an eerie foreshadowing of the Challenger disaster, the rocket suddenly explodes while still in the troposphere. After probing the ferocious blast, the camera locates a flaming piece of debris and follows it for the next two minutes. Caught in an irreversible downward spiral, the displaced jet fragment spins toward an inevitable crash as a single organ plays an elegiac melody. What began as a promising advent has ended in ruinous destruction. With each turn, the jet's flames wane. Like a dying animal, the fragment seems determined to prolong its life as much as possible. It is arguably the most shattering metaphor for the decline of the human species ever recorded on film.

Instead of showing the jet fragment landing on Earth's surface with a violent crash, Reggio cuts to a closer, slow-motion angle of the image while it is still in the air. The final shot of the film perfectly bookends the beginning with a view of an ancient pictograph. This rendering is starkly different than the depiction seen earlier as this expression features no humanlike figures. Without a single subtitle to translate its meaning, the drawing conveys the universality of art in that the viewer does not need to speak a certain language or belong to a given religion in order to understand its message or be moved by its power.

The relevance of Koyaanisqatsi in today's world speaks to the myriad struggles we face; some old, some new, some seemingly unfixable. While our standard of living has largely improved since the film was first released in 1983, our economy has slipped into disrepair with the food crisis, mortgage meltdown, and astronomical gas prices making headlines. In this and other regards, evidence of conditions improving and worsening can be found in equal proportions. Without question, however, the one discussion the film will raise more than any other at this point in our history is that relating to the environment. Outside of the Iraq War, global warming has been the most (pardon the pun) hotly debated issue in the current presidential election. A viewing of the film will trigger lively debates among voters of different minds on alternative energy.

The film's assets are multitudinous, especially with regard to technical excellence. For these efforts, kudos of the highest order must go to cinematographer and editor Ron Fricke. His balancing of stock footage with material he shot himself blends together with seamless perfection. Those unfamiliar with the film's background would think he filmed the whole project himself.

The other artisan responsible for giving the film its power is Philip Glass. Like the greatest film composers, Glass has the gift of molding music to fit the action on screen as a painter chooses colors and brushstrokes. His melodies awaken images that would appear frightfully dull without his contributions.

Interestingly enough, Reggio originally planned to structure the film around a sequence of images on which he had decided with Fricke. After hearing an early recording of the score, however, Reggio completely recut the movie to fit the rhythm of the music. Prior to that stage, Glass showed reluctance when first approached by Reggio to compose the score, remarking that he "didn't do movie music". After several meetings between the two, Glass finally gave in. Thank the forces of good that the director was so persistent.

The film's greatest strength lies in the approach taken by the director. Though the temptation to preach when directing a documentary can be irresistible, Reggio keeps the impulse in check. He caters to no agenda and he panders to no group. Instead, he simply presents the sounds and images as a philosopher presents an argument and lets the audience draw their own conclusions. Adhering to this work ethic, Godfrey Reggio has achieved the goal that most directors never come close to reaching: he has made a film that speaks to the whole world.

Shortly after he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, John Lennon likened his viewing to a religious experience, remarking that the film should be shown every day in a temple. Those seeking an audiovisual marvel unlike anything they have ever consumed before will feel precisely the same way. Koyaanisqatsi is a title that not only belongs in every household, but deserves inclusion as a bequest in every will. When the next generation inherits this cinematic marvel, its unfaltering resonance will affirm the film's reputation as a work that stands the test of time.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Masterpiece Recovered

In what could very well be the film event of the century, a near-complete print of Fritz Lang's 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis has been found in the Museo del Cine museum in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Read the full story from here.

Cinephiles will note that the original print of Metropolis was long thought lost. Now, the world can happily scratch this important title from that list. If we could recover the early works of Ford, Griffith, and Hitchcock, that would be a lucky pan for gold.

How fortunate we movie lovers are that Lang's classic was found in a museum, where help is close at hand. (I'm still trying to figure out how the original print of The Passion of Joan of Arc wound up in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital prior to its 1985 restoration.) Analogously speaking, one could liken this instance to a missing child being found alive in a hospital. According to reports, the film is badly scratched, but in the hands of well-trained preservationists (I sure hope Martin Scorsese lends his support to this cause), the film will get a gleaming makeover. It would be a bonus if Philip Glass or John Williams could adapt Gottfried Huppertz's original score and subsequently conduct the orchestra of their choice for its re-recording.

If I may sneak a final wish into this post, I hope Criterion buys the distribution rights for the hotly anticipated DVD release. Their dedicated staff of artisans have yet to mistreat a classic.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Open Letter to Quentin Tarantino

Dear Mr. Tarantino,

I am writing you to raise a conscientious objection to statements you have recently made in public. The reason I am doing this is not simply for the sake of editorializing, but also for the purpose of refuting the poor advice reflected in your assertions. Be assured that this is not an ad hominem attack planned for the sake of maliciously discrediting you.

Let me begin by stating for the record that I am, for the most part, a great admirer of your work. As I have mentioned to several acquaintances, my virgin viewing of Pulp Fiction on the night of November 26th, 1994, will always be etched in my memory as a movie that ended too soon. How fortunate I felt -- and still feel -- that a young maverick's career was unfolding before my very eyes. Not since Martin Scorsese have I encountered an American film artist whose vision has almost single-handedly shaped an era of movies.

Now that I have said that, it's time to get down to business. According to a news story published by IMDB on May 23rd, you held a Cinema Master Class at the Cannes Film Festival during which you said, "Trying to make a feature film yourself with no money is the best film school you can do."

There is plenty to tear apart in your statement, so I'll start with the obvious. Why would you encourage young film artists to avoid film school at all costs? You haven't spent one day on a film school campus, so what gives you the right to speak out against the idea? There are those who would argue that you didn't need film school to make you successful (and, by that rationale, neither did John Ford), but let's be honest: not everyone possesses your skills. Some people look forward to the rewarding experience of spending three or four years at a prestigious institution honing their craft while forming lifelong bonds with trusted mentors.

You shouldn't assume that anyone who follows your example will achieve your results. Why do I say that? For one simple reason: you got lucky. Extremely lucky. Consider this ratio: for every fortunate soul like yourself who writes, produces, directs, and acts their own movie with little or no money and subsequently hits the big time, there are literally thousands of others whose talents go cruelly unnoticed -- and that's assuming that their films make it to distribution. The directors, writers, producers, and cinematographers who made it to the top of the business by starting at film school far outstrip those who hacked it out on their own.

You could have very well suggested combining real world experience with film schools. What's wrong with shooting for the best of both worlds? Spike Lee financed his first feature on a credit card after completing his MFA at NYU. Of course, Kevin Smith simply took enough film school classes to learn the basics before dropping out and making Clerks on cash advances and a credit card. I could go on citing examples ad nauseam, but my point is that there is no absolutely right way to begin a career in directing films, but there certainly are a ton of wrong ways. I won't belabor the peaks and valleys of both approaches, which I'm sure you already know. Advising an audience of hungry young cineastes to forego film school altogether is dangerous. There are excellent undergraduate and graduate programs on the landscape; one just needs to know where they are and how to get accepted to them.

By now, you're probably wondering, "Why the hell should I listen to you? You've never worked in this business. You're just a critic." We critics aren't the only ones who take this position. Some of your fans with whom I've spoke happen to agree with me. You wouldn't want to alienate your fans, would you? Lest you wonder, I do have experience directing films. What's more, my studies of film history and criticism afford me a focused look at the big picture of cinema. Whatever your bearing of mind on the matter, please tell me you don't subscribe to the tiresome, ignorant old myth that those who can't do teach, and a critic is simply a film school reject who couldn't hack it in Hollywood.

Should you hold any master classes in the future, you may want to consider qualifying your anti-film school advice with the following words of wisdom. If you're not going to opt for film school for whatever reason (e.g., lack of sufficient funds, mistrust of academia, an eagerness to just get out there and start making movies), get experience wherever you can. Gravitate toward colleges large and small; schools with busy film and video production departments. Look up local production companies online. Robert Altman started out making industrial films for a Kansas City based company. If you can't find a company that will hire you, team up with a group of friends and create your own LLC. Without sounding pedantic, I'll close this subject by saying that whatever path you choose, you have to decide how many mistakes you want to make, and how quickly you're willing to learn from them.

At that Cannes master class, you went on to speak disdainfully of film composers. You were quoted as saying, "I just don't trust any composer to do it. The idea of paying a guy and showing him your movie at the end -- who the fuck is this guy coming in here and throwing his shit all over my movie. What if I don't like it? And the guy's already been paid!"

Am I to take it that you prefer to used licensed music in the public domain? Sometimes that approach works, but you can't fall back on Dean Martin and The Beach Boys to set the mood for every scene. A young director cannot afford to pay the licensing costs. There are web-based services out there who charge a per-drop fee for every piece of synthesized music they offer. The music is far from four-star quality, but it'll do in a pinch. Practically speaking, no hungry young director can afford to face the business end of a lawsuit in this litigious society. In that case, it is highly advisable for a director to hire a composer. Is it risky? Of course it is. But think of this? What part of creating art isn't? Every time a director hires someone, be it an actor, cinematographer, set designer, composer, or any other staff member, they are taking a great risk for entrusting creative license to said individual. By the way, your anti-composer statement didn't stop you from hiring The RZA to compose themes for both installments of Kill Bill, did it? According to the most current page for Inglorious Bastards on IMDB, you have yet to hire a composer for the film. Whether you hire one or not is your decision entirely, but if I were you, I would think seriously about employing the skills of a gifted musician. Dyed-in-the-wool film fanatics like myself are counting on artists like you to keep the medium of cinema fresh with new scores instead of the same recycled melodies. Think of all the leitmotifs lifted from every piece of classical music from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to The William Tell Overture in countless commercials, parodies, and movie trailers.

If you're going to choose a composer, hire wisely. John Huston once said, "Ninety percent of directing is done in the casting." That principle applies to every single person a director works with when given command of a movie. Any CEO out there will tell you that if you hire well, the vast majority of your problems will be solved before they occur in the first place. Never send an amateur to do a professional's job.

For those young directors who are trying to get their careers off to respectable starts, they would do well by seeking out a starving young composer attending NYU or Julliard on a scholarship. The world of academia is packed with talented Mancinis just waiting to be plucked from obscurity. Not only would said talent be eternally grateful for being discovered, but the world just may be introduced to a unique musical talent that would otherwise be ignored.

As for you, Mr. Tarantino, I suggest that you find a composer with whom you can form a career-long bond. Where would Steven Spielberg be without John Williams? Where would Fellini be without Nino Rota? Would Hitchcock's films have achieved their notoriety without the efforts of Bernard Herrmann? Each composer's rich, recognizable melodies complement the action on screen like a gourmet salad dressing.

If you're worried about your composer potentially misinterpreting your vision of the movie (the Venn diagrams don't always overlap perfectly, do they?), remember what Leonard Rosenman once told Stanley Kubrick while in preparation for Barry Lyndon: "Just describe the scene as you envision it. Then, I'll take what you said and translate it into music." What director wouldn't feel assured that their movie's music was in good hands after hearing a suggestion like that? Not surprisingly, the man who back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Original Song Score.

If only Frank Zappa were still alive. He'd feel your pain...and he'd make damn sure that your score wouldn't come out sounding like garbage. How about hiring Howard Shore to score your next film? Or better yet, pull Dominic Frontiere out of retirement. One listen to his catchy, vibrant score for The Stunt Man confirms his reputation as a songsmith. Then again, if you want to guarantee an Oscar nomination (if not win) for Best Original Score for Bastards, give Ennio Morricone a call. After all, he composed the themes to the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns you love so much. Whatever happens, just don't do what William Friedkin did when he rejected Lalo Schifrin's score for The Exorcist. As I'm sure you recall from Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Friedkin hurled a reel-to-reel tape recorder through a window at the recording studio before screaming at Schifrin in a drunken rage, "Cut that fuckin' mariachi music outta my movie!" Schifrin was later replaced by Jack Nietzsche. All kidding aside, don't you want to see at least one of your films included on an AFI reel of clips selected for a live performance honoring film scores down the road?

If hiring a composer is something you are still unwilling to do, just pull a Clint Eastwood or a Charlie Chaplin and score the picture yourself. In fact, you even mentioned that yourself during your class. If the thought of composing a film scores on your own seems daunting, relax. You live in the twenty-first century. My advice is to use Reason, a software program that affords the end user a capability equivalent to operating five Synclaviers at once. It takes a little time to get the hang of it, but it certainly beats drawing sticks and dots on sheet music paper for hours on end.

[As an aside to my readers, it might be of interest to you that the author of this letter once considered a career in music composition, but gave the venture second thoughts upon learning the fact that it usually takes an average of 16 hours to compose a single page of sheet music for an entire orchestra.]

I know you are a busy man, and will not take it personally if you refrain from responding. However, should you find the time to reply, simply leave a comment where prompted to do so. And whatever you do, make sure your message is easier to read than Death Proof was to watch.